WASHINGTON - A major university will conduct an independent review of the FBI's "Carnivore" Internet-snooping device and then issue a public report on its findings, Justice Department officials said yesterday.
"The university review team will have total access to any information they need to conduct their review," Attorney General Janet Reno said at her weekly news briefing. "I would hope we could do [the review] quickly."
Justice Department officials said they plan to ask a still-unselected university to study Carnivore to relieve fears of privacy groups and lawmakers.
Carnivore has generated intense criticism from members of Congress and civil libertarians who worry that it could invade the privacy of thousands, if not millions, of Internet users. Carnivore - once the FBI hooks it up to an Internet service provider's server - will be capable of collecting e-mail and other cyberdata of an individual or organization.
A court order would be needed to use Carnivore. But the concern is that the FBI will abuse the device's power and spy on people not suspected of a crime.
Justice Department officials will consult with the FBI, local police and privacy groups before selecting the university to undertake the study, said Steve Colgate, an assistant attorney general.
After reviewing Carnivore, the university team will issue a report to be posted on the Justice Department Web site (www.usdoj.gov), Colgate said. Privacy groups will then have a chance to comment on the institution's findings. By December, a Justice Department panel will make a recommendation to Reno on the future use of the device, Colgate said.
Civil liberties groups said yesterday that the Justice Department proposals did not go far enough to ensure the privacy of Internet users.
Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group had not yet been consulted on the university selection process.
Steinhardt also said that the public should be granted access to the software code that runs Carnivore so the extent of its reach can be independently determined.
Justice Department officials said they were not likely to disclose the code because it is based on commercial software and considered a trade secret.
They also said that revealing the source code would allow suspects to develop ways to slip e-mail and information past Carnivore.